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JANUARY 5, 2014: Under, Down Under
Last week’s quip about the stars in Oz reminded me of my travels in 2001 to Australia’s Siding Spring Observatory. I should preface this piece with the fact that I never sleep on planes and as a result I can arrive at my destinations in zombie like states. This trip was four hours to Detroit, six hours to LA (horrendous headwinds), 18 hours to Sydney and an hour to clear customs. When I finally emerged into the general airport population around 7 a.m., two days later, there were my friends ready to take me to Siding Spring, about 350 miles NW of the city. Little did I realize that Australian roads are…, well…, let’s say, primitive, and some 12 hours later, around dusk, we arrived at our rental property on the observatory grounds. We were in the “bush,” against Warrumbungle National Park, and the screeches coming from the jungle begged me to explore. I kept close to the bungalow, sleuthing around like a timid Sherlock Holmes until I turned a corner and came eye to eye with two kangaroos. They were six feet tall! I jumped. They jumped…, and in two gigantic leaps they disappeared into the bush. I retreated indoors to try out my new Radio Shack converter and promptly blew out all the fuses in the house. The biggest 240-volt spark ever… How did I know it would malfunction? My friends pointed to my bedroom with one word of advice, “sleep,” and so I did for about six hours. When I awoke around 2 a.m., moonlight was streaming into my room. I dressed in its glow and found my way outside to the most incredible sky that I had ever seen. I can still feel the awe well up inside of me as I write this. All of those thousands of stars and I didn’t recognize a thing until I lowered my head and viewed the heavens upside-down. I nearly fell two or three times during the next hour, but in the next three weeks of nightly observing, upside down became right side up as I “fell” in love with the most vivid sky in the world.
JANUARY 12, 2014: Early Bird Events Mark 2014
Two thousand fourteen is not a bad year for astronomical events if you don’t mind getting up early in the morning. There are two total lunar eclipses, the first occurring on April 15 and the second happening on October 8. However, the most intriguing celestial event is an occultation of the bright alpha star of Leo the Lion, Regulus, by the 45-mile in diameter asteroid, 163 Erigone, on March 20. It’s almost local. The shadow of Erigone sweeps across most of Long Island, northern Manhattan, SW Connecticut, and SE New York State. It all goes down at 2:06 a.m., EDT with the entire episode lasting a mere 14 seconds if you are in the center of Erigone’s path. I know what you’re thinking. “Who would ever travel 100 miles or 1000 miles to see something like that?” My guess is that thousands of people will make the journey, and perhaps as many as 100,000 people in the shadow path will get up or stay up to witness the 21st brightest star of the night, Regulus, abruptly disappear. Then not quite a month later on April 15, and about the same time, 1:58 a.m., EDT, the moon is eclipsed by the Earth’s shadow (umbra). Totality, when the moon is completely inside the umbra, occurs at 3:06 a.m. and lasts until 4:28 a.m. It is at this time when the moon can take on a variety of different hues from browns, reds, oranges, and even yellows. The moon slips away from the Earth’s shadow by 5:35 a.m., well into dawn’s light. The final big event of 2014 transpires during the morning of October 8, when the moon again meets up with Earth’s shadow. This lunar eclipse is best positioned for the West Coast and Hawaii, but the eastern half of the nation still has a decent view. The moon first enters Earth’s shadow at 5:18 a.m., EDT (2:18 a.m., PDT). Totality commences at 6:30 a.m., EDT, when the moon is only six degrees above the western horizon and 21 minutes before it is exactly full. The sun rises at 7:05 a.m., just as the moon is setting. Clear skies and Happy 2014 to everyone!
JANUARY 19, 2014: Dipper on the Rise
Everyday the Earth changes its orbital position by about one degree, so that during the course of a year, our planet completes one revolution around the sun. This counterclockwise motion of the Earth also causes the stars and constellations to inch forward by one degree per day, rising four minutes earlier every evening. Although winter is upon us, the sky is already beginning to hint of spring and warmer days ahead. That indicator to me has always been represented by the seven luminaries that comprise the Big Dipper, the core stars of the constellation of the Great Bear, Ursa Major. The Dipper is an asterism, not an official star pattern recognized by professional astronomers. Its origins may date to the antebellum South’s Drinking Gourd which could have been used by slaves trying to escape northward along the banks of Alabama’s Tombigbee River. From mid-autumn to early winter, the Dipper resides low and mostly invisible to us as it scrapes the barren landscapes of the northern horizon; but as the New Year dawns, Earth’s journey around the sun causes the Dipper to turn slowly upward, ascending into the northeastern heavens, its two pointer stars, Dubhe and Merak, leading the way for the other five luminaries to follow. By 6:30 p.m. this week, Dubhe may be the only star of the Dipper visible, about 20 degrees off the NE horizon. An hour later, the two pointer stars should be fully observable, and by 8:30 p.m., the cup will have come into view. Add two more hours to your watch, and the entire Dipper should be clear of all obstacles. As January blends into February, and then melts into March, the Dipper will continue to gain altitude; eventually, the arc of its handle sweeping low to the eastern horizon to reveal ruddy Arcturus and blue white Spica. That’s a 1-2 a.m. scene right now, but by mid-March the orbiting Earth will bring the same panorama into view by 9-10 p.m., announcing the arrival of spring.
JANUARY 26, 2014: Mercury Visible Now!
Mercury, the most illusive of the five naked eye planets, revolves around the sun in a scant 88 days. Because the Earth is also orbiting in the same direction, Mercury catches up to us every 116 days, allowing for a minimum of six time periods during the year when the Messenger God is visible; three happen in the dawn hours and three take place after sunset. Because Mercury never gets more than 28 degrees from the sun as seen from Earth, it is almost never viewed in a completely dark sky. Sometimes, like this week, when Mercury is also closest to the sun, this maximum angle is as small as 18 degrees. If this kind of (eastern) elongation happens in late summer and autumn, Mercury hugs the horizon as it orbits the sun, but when this condition takes place from mid-winter through spring, Mercury pulls away from the sun at an angle steeply tilted to the horizon. Such are the circumstances for this current apparition of Mercury when it reaches its 18 degree angle of greatest eastern elongation from the sun on January 31. Eastern elongations of planets or stars simply mean that they are east of the sun, and therefore, visible in the western sky after sundown. Mercury can be seen throughout this week and next week in the WSW about 45 minutes after sunset as a starlike object close to the horizon. To see Mercury, your observing location should have an unobstructed western view, and skies should be clear and crisp. If you have binoculars, use them to enhance the vividness of Mercury against a fairly bright background sky. Any “star” seen about one binocular field or less above the WSW landscape will be Mercury. There is just nothing that bright in the same vicinity. A razor thin, crescent moon positioned to Mercury’s lower right, augments the scene on Friday, January 31st, and stands above the Messenger God on February 1st. Good observing!